All about the Benjamins: the nineteenth century character assassination of Benjamin Franklin

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University of Alabama Libraries

Early in his Autobiography, Benjamin Franklin proclaims that the chief benefit of the autobiographical form is that it affords one the opportunity to replicate oneself. In his self-replication, Franklin creates an American mythos of success that shaped America's imagined nationalist identity. Franklin's construction of the American success hero was informed by his philosophy of tangible character-building via the traits we traditionally associate with Franklin, such as industry and frugality. Yet, one of the most evident, but perplexingly overlooked features of Franklin's Autobiography is his extensive use of irony as a rhetorical and literary device. Franklin's use of irony indicates an awareness that his hero was first and foremost a written creation, which infuses his narrative with a complexity that belied the matter-of-fact prescriptions for success lying on its surface. Over the course of the nineteenth century, autobiographical emulators of Franklin appropriated his narrative to suit their own purposes, ignoring or suppressing his irony in the process. These appropriations result in a fracturing of Franklin's original character into multiple Benjamins. Franklin becomes, then, not just his own creative project, but a national creative project. This dissertation presents a lineage of Franklins created by the multiple appropriations of his story over the nineteenth century, tracking how each replication of him participates in the reshaping of the Franklinian hero into a kind of synecdoche that denies the complexity and irony present in the original sources, thus "assassinating" the original Franklinian character and, in the process, the early American concept of "character" itself.

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American literature, American studies